AUGUSTA, Maine — In April 2009, several dozen Republican lawmakers gathered on the banks of the Kennebec River near downtown Augusta to unveil their legislative priorities during a rally that had all the elements of a campaign kick-off.
“We are here today to mark the start of a new era and to define for the people of Maine what Republicans stand for,” Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, told the crowd of reporters and supporters.
Looking to the next round of negotiations over budget cuts, Raye added: “While we don’t hold the reins of state government, we do have the ability to shape debate.”
A year and a half later, the state is facing another round of potentially painful budget cuts. But this time, the Maine GOP is in control, and Raye is in one of the power seats.
“I think what you will see with Governor [Paul] LePage and a Republican-controlled Legislature is a more thoughtful approach than has been employed in the last few years,” Raye, the state’s next Senate president, said during an interview recently.
On the other side of the State House and the political aisle, another local legislator, Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, is preparing to assume leadership of House Democrats, albeit not in the position she had envisioned a few weeks ago.
Cain, 30, had hoped to succeed another presumed young-and-rising Democrat, Rep. Hannah Pingree of North Haven, into the House Speaker seat. Instead, Cain was elected House minority leader last week following the Democrats’ loss of nearly two dozen seats and, therefore, control of the chamber on Nov. 2.
The challenge for Democrats, Cain said this past week, is to avoid becoming “the party of ‘no’” but instead to influence debate and policy in a productive way by becoming the party of “not that — but this.”
“Most of the work we do in the State House is unanimous and bipartisan,” said Cain, who most recently served as the House chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. “But some things aren’t, and that’s good because not everything should be.”
On Wednesday, newly elected and re-elected lawmakers will converge on the State House to be sworn in and to elect House Speaker, Senate President and the state’s three constitutional officers: treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state.
Republicans have already selected Raye and Rep. Bob Nutting of Oakland to become Sen-ate President and House Speaker, respectively, and are expected to be formally elected as such next Wednesday.
Raye and Cain are not the only local lawmakers holding leadership positions, however.
Sen. Debra Plowman and Rep. Andre Cushing — both Republicans from Hampden — will serve as assistant majority leaders in their respective chambers.
Looking ahead to the session that begins in January, both Raye and Cain said they expect the budget to be the dominant issue. New revenue forecasts suggest that Maine’s economic situation is improving, but lawmakers will still likely face a shortfall measured in the hundreds of millions. That follows two years of recession-wracked budgets.
Raye said he expects the Gov.-elect LePage and the GOP-controlled Legislature to focus on reforming welfare and bringing Maine’s Medicaid eligibility standards down to the national average.
As Senate minority leader, Raye voted for the past two budget packages, which were the results of months of bipartisan negotiation in the Appro-priations Committee co-chaired by Cain.
But he predicted the GOP-led effort will address some of the areas where Democrats were resistant, such as reforming welfare and bringing Maine’s Medicaid eligibility requirements down to the national standard.
“We shaped something we could live with,” Raye said of the recent budgets. “That is different from what we would have shaped had we been in the majority.”
But Raye, a Washington County native, predicted that Republicans will also be more sensitive to the concerns of rural Maine than Democrats were.
“Rural Maine rose up [on Election Day] and said we have had enough and want change in Augusta,” Raye said.
On the Democratic side, Cain said she already has a good working relationship with Nut-ting — the presumed House Speaker — due to their work together on Appropriations.
Cain said she was also impressed by LePage’s choices for his budget advisory team, in particular former Appropriations Committee member Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, and former finance commissioner Ryan Low.
But she predicted that Democrats will continue to fight for the party’s core principles, such as protecting the most vulnerable citizens and preserving the environment.
“I think people expect us to be reasonable but forceful,” Cain said.
At the same time, she and other Democratic leaders are undergoing the same sort of soul searching that spawned the GOP rally on the banks of the Kennebec a year and a half ago as the Democrats seek to climb back into power in Augusta.
Cain said the recent election shows that a top priority for Maine Democrats is rebuilding the party’s relationship with the business community.
“I believe our best strategy for 2012 is doing good work in the State House during the next two years,” Cain said.